Gently Down The Stream
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
We all have our secrets. For thirty years, I’ve hidden the fact that I was musically illiterate. It’s nothing to be proud of, and last spring I decided to do something about it.
The whole process began as the result of a Christmas present. A friend of mine sent me an original book of Albert Ammons’ piano solos. Back in the Thirties, Ammons, along with Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, took boogie-woogie piano from the barrelhouse to Carnegie Hall. I was determined to figure out his style. Two measures into the first selection I realized I had been playing some of the left-hand figures incorrectly. Unfortunately, there were notes going in every direction, three lines below the staff, then four spaces above it , and this was just the damn bass (All Cows Eat Grass) clef. In the past, I would have framed the cover and forgot about the rest, but I decided, one last time, less than ten years from retirement age, to try and teach myself to read music.
I pulled out my copy of Alfred’s Adult Piano Course One and began with “Row, Row, Row Your F-ckin’ Boat.” I felt like a fool, and sounded like one. The “Life is But a Dream” line resembled Floyd Cramer…on nitrous oxide. I was in the privacy of my bedroom and, indeed, there are more than a couple of frustration-driven, size thirteen Tony Lama-induced scuff marks on the wall left from those first sessions.
Musical illiteracy is not my main secret: I have severe attention deficit disorder. I have always loved playing music, but sitting down and staying focused has proved almost impossible. On a good day, I have the attention span of a bipolar hamster after two cans of Mountain Dew… The least little jingle from my “smart” phone… outside noise… like that idiot next door with the chain saw… “What’s he doing? He knows we’re not supposed to be… Damn, I remember when I worked at Camp Shenandoah and that guy from Finland almost cut off his leg with the chain saw… what was his name? …Esko… oh yeah, he used to fu…”
One of my best high school friends went to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She practiced eight hours a day, every day. Eight hours a day? To me, the thought of sitting still and focusing for one hour was discouraging and virtually impossible. Looking through some old notes, I discovered something that someone with similar attention issues had suggested:
Set a kitchen timer to fifteen minutes. Just play around at first, but when the timer buzzes, stop. Now go do something, reward yourself with fifteen minutes of cartoons.
Solid, can do!
Sure enough, the minutes flew by and somewhere in the middle of the dreaded key of A flat, I was saved by the buzzer.
I took a break.
I sat down for another fifteen minutes and played some slow blues.
I took me the better part of two hours, but I actually put in one whole hour of practice.
I did that four times the first week.
The second week, I increased the intervals to twenty minutes.
Week Three found me ignoring the buzzer, playing for a few more minutes at the end of each cycle and able to pick out a few of the more familiar notes on the staff in the keys of C, F, and G.
I began testing myself while eating dinner. I would draw out a musical staff on the back of an envelope from a bill collector (plenty of those around) and write out the notes on the bass and treble clefs.
Screwing up the nerve to try the Ammons book again, I broke it down by measure, and then by individual note.
Lo and behold, I figured out the notes to this one lick that I had been trying to figure out for years.
Two hours later, my hands were getting tired, and the sun was coming up.
Big, Bad John
Back in 1967, I bought a book titled Jazz Improvisation: Swing and Early Progressive Piano Styles by John Mehegan. I’ve tried to understand it no less than a dozen times, and had given up. Even for someone who reads music it’s a challenge, a serious book for serious players. Joey DeFrancesco lists it in the back of his “technique book” as indispensable. Horace Silver wrote the introduction. There are transcriptions of Art Tatum (132nd note arpeggios??) in the original keys, many of them in the dreaded A flat. There are substitute voicings, turnarounds, numerous standards, and page after page of walking left-hand tenth chords (a major triad with the third displaced up an octave, requiring a hand stretch of over an octave). Professor Mehegan expects you to learn them in every damn key, along with their relative minors.
Once again, I set the timer. Fortunately, one of the positive characteristics of my “disorder” is the ability to recognize and utilize patterns. After a couple more weeks, some began to fall in place. Somewhere between “Over The Rainbow” and “One For The Road” I began to realize: take away the Pentatonic runs, embellishment tones, and chord inversions and most popular music is “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat” with a Conk. (see the “Percy Mayfield” column from August 10)
On September 28, I turn fifty-eight years old. Twelve months ago, due to a bum knee, I was hobbling around on painkillers and a cane. A lot has changed since then.
Thanks to Dr. Manderson, I no longer need the cane.
Thanks to Dr. Meetze, I no longer need the pills
Thanks to Duane Straub (who gave me the Ammons book) and whoever it was that passed along the practice tips, finally, after thirty long years, I understand Jazz Improvisation: Swing and Early Progressive Piano Styles.
Thanks to John Mehegan, you should hear my arrangement of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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